Race Weekend Central

Jimmie Johnson, Kaz Grala Battle Their Ways Into Daytona 500 Field

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In terms of the fight to make the Daytona 500, both Jimmie Johnson and Kaz Grala endured all the stress they could handle Thursday night at the World Center of Racing.

Johnson and Grala earned the two “race-in” spots available during the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona Int’l Speedway, in battles that came down to the final lap of both qualifying races.

In the first Duel, Johnson appeared set to cruise to a guaranteed berth in the Great American Race, but was involved in a multi-car incident in turn three coming to 10 to go that nearly left him in dire straits.

Contact between defending Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Hemric sent Hemric spinning down the banking, with Austin Dillon and Johnson left with little room to take evasive action.

To his credit, Johnson managed to spin his No. 84 Carvana Toyota Camry XSE into a skid before he made contact with any of the other cars involved, salvaging his Duel hopes despite a nervous moment.

From there, Johnson — a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and the co-owner of Legacy Motor Club — was locked in a dogfight with NY Racing’s J.J. Yeley following the final restart with six laps left.

The two battled back and forth, trading position nearly every lap of the final run, but it was the sprint to the finish line off turn 4 that decided the outcome.

As Ross Chastain lost momentum and slowed ahead of him, Yeley had to jump to the high side of the lead draft, but had no help upstairs and began fading entering the tri-oval.

That allowed Johnson to shoot to the middle of the racetrack with a shove from fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr., giving Johnson the boost he needed to race his way into his 21st Daytona 500.

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After saluting Yeley for the hard-fought battle on pit road, Johnson acknowledged the amount of relief he felt at finally knowing his place on the grid for Sunday’s 66th Daytona 500 was secure.

“I just have such a greater appreciation for what so many others have gone through to race in after going through that tonight,” Johnson said. “I was so fortunate for so many years to not have to worry about getting in on speed, for a variety of different reasons. Last year, even, went well. We got in on speed.”

“To go through that just now, and literally have it come down to the last hundred yards of the Duel … that wasn’t in my playbook,” Johnson added. “I’m glad I prepared like I did. I’m glad the team was ready. We had a very fast car. Unfortunately, with the crash that took place that I was caught up in, pitting afterward just had us in an awkward position at the back of the field as the last car in either lane, where it was tough to make something happen.

“Coming through three and four, there was almost a wreck again. J.J. chose one lane and I chose the middle lane, which prevailed by the time we got to start/finish. It was as simple as that at the end.”

This year marked the first time that Johnson had ever had to race in through the Duels. During his rookie year in 2002, Johnson would have had to do so, but qualified on the pole to lock into the front row.

Grala’s journey in the second Duel was nearly as eventful. A shifter issue that led to a blown engine during qualifying Wednesday night meant that Grala had no qualifying time to fall back on, so he had to race forward from the rear of his 150-mile qualifying race.

After losing the draft following the round of green-flag pit stops that took place inside of 20 to go, Grala was saved by an 11-car crash on lap 48 of 60 that collected half the field, led to a nearly-nine-minute red flag stoppage, and caused minor damage to B.J. McLeod — his main rival in the battle to qualify in.

Grala restarted inside the top 10 when racing resumed in the second Duel with eight laps left, but got shuffled back late and found himself wheel to wheel with McLeod at the white-flag with a spot in the Daytona 500 in the balance.

After the two fought side by side for nearly the entire final lap, Grala’s Front Row Motorsports Ford found enough momentum with help from fellow Ford driver David Ragan to pass McLeod coming to the checkered flag, edging out the journeyman by .067 seconds for a place in the Great American Race.

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It left Grala emotional and shaking his head slightly as he spoke to reporters after the second Duel.

“That was a whole lot more intense than I hoped when it came down to the end,” Grala admitted. “Certainly, it was a lot more intense than I wanted it to be. We had really good track position there after the caution but just got shuffled out a little bit. Of course, we ended up racing the two open cars right there for the last two laps.”

“I’m glad we were able to come out on the right end. It was pretty tough to beat those guys tonight,” added Grala, who will race in his third Daytona 500 in four years Sunday. “The 78 [McLeod] ran a great race. The 60 car [Ragan] was pushing hard, too. I was glad that he helped me out a little bit. He picked my line there on the closing laps, which definitely worked in my favor against the 78.”

Grala’s effort means that three Front Row Motorsports Fords will start Sunday’s Daytona 500, attempting to give team owner Bob Jenkins his second Harley J. Earl Trophy after McDowell’s stunning 2021 upset.

“Just really proud of the Front Row Motorsports guys … because the last 24 hours were pretty stressful, and it took a lot of hard work to get the car repaired and ready for today,” the Massachusetts native said. “I felt like [the car] had good speed in it. The driver just needed to pick up on some things.

“We did a little learning tonight and thankfully we’ll be able to use those lessons come race time on Sunday.”

Perhaps Johnson, however, said it best when it came to the emotions of having to scratch and claw just to start the most prestigious race on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar.

“To fight like we did in those closing laps, I’ve only done that for a race win here, and I’ve never had that level of anxiety and fight for anything else in my career except a proper trophy.

“That was its own level of intense, and thankfully, it’s over now and we came out on the right end of it.”

Johnson and Grala will start 23rd and 26th, respectively, in Sunday’s 66th running of the Daytona 500.

The pair will return to the track with the rest of the Daytona 500 starting field when NASCAR Cup Series practice hits the 2.5-mile high banks Friday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, live on FS1.

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